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Hall Monitor

If the PPA Says "Yes," Can Smith Say "No"?

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THE UNIONS THAT represent the city's rank-and-file cops and firefighters—making up the bulk of two city bureaus that, together, eat up much of Portland's operating budget—have finally thrown their considerable weight behind a mayoral candidate: State Representative Jefferson Smith.

The pick, announced jointly on Monday, April 23, by the Portland Police Association (PPA) and Portland Firefighters Association (PFFA), cements Smith's status as organized labor's preferred candidate. It gives him a powerful tool: the ability to cast cops and firefighters in campaign ads, something State Representative Mary Nolan has already done in her increasingly negative campaign against incumbent City Commissioner Amanda Fritz.

In hindsight, the whole thing was likely telegraphed several days ago when retiring Commissioner Randy Leonard, a labor ally and former PFFA president, revealed his own support for Smith.

Presidents from both unions described the endorsement as a move on behalf of workers and reflective of Smith's history of union support. PPA President Daryl Turner—who last month declared his union's intent to invest in candidates who might, in turn, be sympathetic to their issues—said that "political record" mattered as much as any public-safety policy differences he and Smith might have.

"We're looking for a candidate who will be a leader and at least listen," Turner told me, making sure to mention that he'd met with each major candidate at least twice personally and that each had also visited the PPA's board.

But we ought not ignore, especially with the PPA, what role policy might have played in the endorsement.

Unlike activist Cameron Whitten and businesswoman Eileen Brady, Smith waited until he was asked by the Mercury to say he agreed with the city's bid to challenge the reinstatement of Ron Frashour, the cop who killed Aaron Campbell in 2010. And then Smith said he called the PPA right after. (Brady says Turner called her after she publicly emailed her stance; he wasn’t happy.) Smith also is unwilling to commit to ensuring that grand jury transcripts in fatal police shootings remain public—something that benefits both cops and citizens.

Further, while Smith has talked of a "culture change" on the use of force in the police bureau, he has deferred on some specifics, citing an ongoing federal investigation of the bureau.

Interestingly, the one bold thing he's mentioned—bringing fellow city commissioners to future contract talks to ensure they're not held in secret ["Behind Closed Doors," News, June 2]—actually has support from Turner (who argues that would actually make the rest of council accountable for the union's contract).

Policy and pocketbook issues are also linked. During the last contract, even with the city facing budget cuts and potential cop layoffs, the union traded relatively modest policy concessions for millions in new compensation.

The police union isn't like other unions. Its members carry guns and are allowed to use deadly force. With ballots dropping in mere days, Smith needs to explain, and fast, why this endorsement won't keep him from remembering his obligation to the rest of the community, too.

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